America’s biggest shopping mall grabbed headlines this week by hiring its first African-American Father Christmas. But black Santas have been around for a lot longer than you might think – and even played a role in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
“Everything that Santa represents has to be you. That’s my honest belief. You can’t have some grumpy old guy who doesn’t love kids sitting there representing somebody who is joyful, somebody who is loving.”
Kenny Green is a man who takes his job seriously.
He has been playing Santa Claus for the past five years and although the mall where he works, in a suburb of Washington DC, has hosted a black Santa for as long as anyone can remember, he says they are still “few and far between” in the rest of America.
African-American families come from as far afield as Delaware, 80 miles away, to visit his grotto, at the Shops at Iverson mall.
Which is why, he says, it was “huge” that the Mall of America – the country’s biggest indoor shopping complex – decided to hire a black Santa for the first time this year.
The Minnesota shopping centre hired Larry Jefferson at a Santa convention in Missouri, where among more than 1,000 attendees he was the only African-American.
He only appeared at the Mall of America for one weekend but it was still enough to spark racist abuse on message boards.
In the overheated post-election atmosphere, Santa Claus is seen by some as another cherished cultural institution under attack by the forces of political correctness. The traditional image of Santa, as a jolly, rotund, and white, character is deeply embedded in American culture.
“Going to a department store, sitting on Santa’s lap, all of that, is very central to a certain kind of post-war, white middle-class identity,” says Prof Victoria Wolcott, a history professor at the University of Buffalo, who writes about segregation.
“To challenge that, by having a Santa Claus of colour, disturbs people.”
It appears to have been disturbing people for more than a century, judging from local newspaper reports about “negro Santas”, which tend to veer from an amused “whatever next” tone to examples of flat-out racism.
Santa’s origin story
Image copyrightGETTY IMAGESImage captionSaint Nicholas, the 4th century bishop
The Santa Claus legend can be traced back to a fourth century monk named St Nicholas who lived in what is today Turkey
The modern image of Santa Claus was created in the late 1800s by American artist Thomas Nast in a series of cartoons for Harper’s Weekly magazine
It became a staple of Christmas cards and advertising images in the early 20th Century, most notably a 1930s Coca-Cola commercial, which some believe popularised his distinctive red-and-white garb